Today in Literary History – October 12, 1908 – Ann Petry is born

Ann Petry, the first black American woman novelist to sell over a million copies of a book was born on October 11, 1908 (or 1911, accounts vary). She died in 1998.

Petry was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, into a middle-class black family. She later recounted the many instances of racism she faced growing up there in a predominantly white community.

Her father was a pharmacist and she earned a pharmacy degree and worked in the profession.

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After her marriage in 1938 she and her husband moved to Harlem where she got a job writing for The Amsterdam News. She became involved in socially progressive activities as well as artistic endeavours such as acting and painting as well as having a number of her short stories published.

Her first novel, The Street, was the result of her winning the Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award in 1946. The prize earned her a $2,400 stipend that allowed her to finish the novel.

The novel was an immediate success, selling 20,000 copies pre-publication and going on to sell 1.5 million copies.

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It is the story of Lutie Johnson, struggling to raise her three children in Harlem. Lutie is well-educated and ambitious but the systems of racism and sexism beat her down.

Unlike more aspirational black novels of the time, The Street paints a bleaker, some critics say more realistic, view.

The Street was re-issued in 1992 and is still in print.

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